There are five of us in Vanessa's spacious inner north Canberra kitchen this Friday night, chopping vegetables, rolling mini meatballs by hand - and drinking wine. Conversation flows. Vanessa's two venerable cats, each nearly 20 years old, lounge on the sofa. It's a companionable girls' night - except none of us have really met all the others before. We're here for a Cooking Circle.
Community sector worker Heidi Zajac came up with the idea of the Cooking Circles - groups of women who gather to cook, learn from each other and then share a meal. The project was born out of Zajac's experiences in East Timor, cooking with local women in their homes. Tonight we're helping prepare a Greek feast with recipes handed down to Vanessa from her grandmother.
Jenny is layering sheets of pastry and stirring a bowl of ricotta and spinach for a big spanakopita. She's a former teacher and UN staffer, who's worked on Norfolk Island and has a gentle, calm demeanour that inspires. She and Heidi talk about social and community projects in Canberra. Our hostess Vanessa, glamorous in a metallic dark blue jumper and chandelier earrings, has an easy warm manner and a sure touch in the kitchen. She's also invited a longtime friend, and the two trade stories about work, family and everything in between with an easy familiarity. Vanessa's young son Andrew has been asked to help out with dinner and - in honour of the occasion - has adorably put on a formal suit. But he's a little shy, so he pops out of the rec room every now and then for a chat, and to collect more meatballs for himself and Dad.
We're having a couple of Greek entrees - the little succulent meatballs, perfect with a minty yogurt dipping sauce. Vanessa takes a knife to a triangular wedge of kefalograviera, cutting thick slices which she places in a frying pan to sear. It makes a rich starter to the meal, slices of fried cheese, crisp on the outside and oozing hot on the inside, drizzled with bright lemon juice for extra tang and flavour. They're simple and yet perfect.
The spanakopita comes out of the oven and we sit down around the table, where Vanessa's son has carefully made colourful flowers for everyone out of pink and purple paper. There is a big loaf of fresh bread, dollops of butter and a Greek salad to serve out. Vanessa's recipes are some of her favourites - things that her grandmother would cook at huge family gatherings, bringing out dishes in waves as people lingered and talked. We talk a lot about family - the dishes we would eat with our own families as kids, the feasts full of cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles. "Every Sunday we would drive hours to have lunch with my grandmother," Jenny recalls. "When I was a teenager I used to hate it because everyone else was having fun and I couldn't go to anything." Even though we've all only just met, the conversation is warm, friendly and filled with anecdotes - these are women who love to eat and appreciate the opportunities that food gives them to connect with friends and family.
Dessert is equally decadent - generous, thick slices of galaktoboureko, filled with semolina custard, flaky pastry and glazed with honey. We talk about friendship, the way that some people come into your life and stick, whether or not you see each other all the time, and the way other relationships don't quite blossom into close friendships. Heidi wants to know if she should run more Cooking Circles based on a theme, such as a particular cuisine or cooking technique. "Maybe a dumpling night?" we suggest. "Everyone gets together and rolls out and fills hundreds of dumplings." It's similar to what used to happen at Chinese New Year gatherings with my extended family - all the small kids and cousins running around playing, all the mums and sisters grouped in the kitchen, peeling and slicing fruit and vegetables, helping put together a huge dinner.
Though it hasn't been an enormous family gathering, tonight's cooking circle has been companionable, lively and a feast of traditional Greek portions. It's exactly what Heidi planned. It's easy to see why she believes cooking can bring women together, ease social isolation, help them form supportive networks and communities. And it's been a fabulous meal.